Kathy Zeitoun leads panel discussion on prison abuse

This article was published in The Hullabaloo on October 29, 2010.

Four women who were either prison abuse victims or human rights activists led a panel discussion entitled “Human Rights of the Incarcerated” Tuesday night.

The Newcomb College Institute and Newcomb-Tulane College co-sponsored the event.

Kathy Zeitoun, the event’s keynote speaker, knows the atrocities committed within the New Orleans prison system all too well. As told in Dave Eggers’ book “Zeitoun,” Kathy’s Syrian husband Abdulrahman Zeitoun, wrongfully accused of terrorism charges and denied due process, spent five months in Louisiana jails following Hurricane Katrina.

“It was hard for him to be called Taliban, al-Qaeda,” Zeitoun said, recounting his treatment by prison guards, some of whom had just returned from serving in Iraq. “We worked so hard to build our reputations in this city, being Muslim… and after the storm we helped rebuild.”

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with one of every 55 residents behind bars, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU of Louisiana receives approximatelty 80 complaints of prison abuses each month, mostly concerning “beatings from guards, inadequate medical care, squalid living conditions and being denied access to a lawyer,” according to their website. In New Orleans, city officials are currently looking to almost double prison capacities despite a budget crisis that is forcing public universities to severely cut programs.

“It costs $7,000 of taxpayer money to educate a child for a year… but it costs $70,000 to incarcerate someone for a year,” said panelist Claire Kieffer, who graduated from Tulane in 2002 and now interviews imprisoned women around the country for the Voice of Witness project, which aims to expose human rights abuses through storytelling.

Kieffer spoke about a woman she interviewed in a Georgia prison who was convicted of stealing from her employer, KMart. She said that prison authorities handcuffed the pregnant woman to a bed and forced her to have a Cesarean section birth against her will. After the surgery, they allowed her 48 hours with her newborn baby before returning her to prison and giving her ibuprofen. Guards kept the new mother in isolation.

The speakers said they believed that most prisoners land in jail because of the lack of services available to those who grow up without a support system, citing additionally that 90 percent of the imprisoned women they interview report being victims of childhood sexual abuse.

“My mom was a heroin addict, I had no father, and no brothers or sisters… by the time I was 13, I was prostituting on the street,” said panelist Irma Rodriguez, who has spent 23 years in and out of the California prison system for drug charges. “A person is not born to be a rapist or a murderer. A person is made by society.”

Rodriguez suffered a range of abuses at the hands of prison guards, from sexual assault to neglect of her healthcare.

Possibly the worst of all the abuses, however, was when a prison doctor misdiagnosed Rodriguez as HIV-positive. She spent the next decade taking HIV medications and believing she lived with the terminal illness, only to be told in 2007 that she never had the disease.

“I want people to know the extremities of what goes on in the prison system,” Rodriguez said. “Society teaches you to believe they’re doing the right thing — that they’re making communities safer by locking people up. But people don’t go in and come out the same. All social problems are magnified 10 times in prison. You are stripped of humanity.”

Not only does the lack of support services for at-risk populations lead people to resort to crime, but once a prisoner is released, that same lack of support makes it hard for them to break free of the prison cycle.

“After spending five years in jail, they said to me, ‘Here is $200, and there is the world,’” Rodriguez said. “Institutions and prisons became my home because I didn’t know anything different.”

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